*Image: “Willing” by Karen Henderson, 9″x9″ Hand woven linen and silk, with silk organza and gold foil; dye painting, rust print and hand stitching, 2008
How I Found God in the Laundromat
by Sam Gridley
Actually He was a little white-haired Jewish lady. But therein lies the tale.
As a twelve-year-old I scorned the ritual of becoming a man. The religious part of it, I mean, which included meeting each Thursday with the assistant rabbi to study my Haftarah portion, the verses from the Prophets that I would chant at my Bar Mitzvah. Repeating over and over and over the same syllables and tones. Going to Hebrew class twice a week besides. All this so I could avoid embarrassing myself when I stood on the bimah to face a mass of sentimental faces.
It was 1973, and this traditional stuff seemed absurd. Even my parents weren’t deeply religious, as far as I could tell, but they took their seats in our upscale suburban synagogue a dozen times a year (not just for the High Holidays) and believed that Hebraic heritage helped shape our character. As Dad the architect explained to my little sister and me, “You can’t build the upper levels without a sound foundation.” (In later years I wondered how this applied to the single-level strip malls he specialized in.)
In daily practice, what our family substituted for religion was high seriousness. In college, when I came across that phrase from Matthew Arnold, I saw how perfectly it captured my parents’ approach to life. Dad’s standard question was What did you learn from this? and Mom thought any issue relating to education, health, hygiene, etc. was No Laughing Matter. Like the time Mom chewed out Rebecca for riding her bike in the street:
“Yeah, Becky,” I chimed in, “a truck’ll zoom down here with cinder blocks for Dad’s new shopping center. You’ll get smushed into mashed potatoes.”
Mom stared at me over her reading glasses. “Robert, what kind of language is that? Are you trying to terrify your sister?”
I opened my mouth, spread my hands—and realized, for the 487th time, that she was deaf to irony. “Mom, it’s a joke,” I explained. “We live on a cul-de-sac. There’s no traffic here.”
Continued glare over the glasses. As the office manager for an international law firm, she brooked no foolishness. I shrugged and walked away, abandoning Becky to the rest of the lecture, which must have intensified after my attempt at mockery.
In this environment, if I’d protested against my Bar Mitzvah—if I’d claimed to be a Rastafarian at heart, or sworn allegiance to witchcraft, or screamed This is all fake and I won’t participate—they’d have given the subject grave consideration. We would have had a Discussion, i.e., a minimum of 20 minutes in our formal living room, where two straight-backed armchairs faced the uncomfortable sofa. After which they would have let me escape the ritual, I’m sure. Alone in their bedroom they would have had their own long Discussion about the pros and cons of Rastafarianism and the state of the public schools, which must be where I had encountered such an unsettling influence.
But at that stage of my life I was too cowardly to protest. It was easier to go along to get along. Besides, I knew the gelt at stake was considerable; my mom had written a big check to a mere second cousin whose chanting betrayed unfortunate nasal buzzes. I didn’t guess that the wealth so acquired would be socked away by my parents in a college fund. It did occur to me that practicing religion for the sake of money might be a major offense, but somehow I let that slide.
The synagogue had a secret attraction, too. A confirmation class, mostly girls, met at the same time as my lesson. In passing the tenth-grade females I had plenty of sneaky thoughts, visions so intricate and appalling I figured no boy-almost-man in the history of the world had ever experienced them before.
In the early days of my training, then, the apparent advantages (gelt, girls, avoidance of Discussion) matched up pretty well with the disadvantages (extra books, hours of tedium, etc.). But soon additional things started to rankle—the assistant rabbi, for one. Late-thirtyish and balding, always smelling of aftershave, he’d recently come to us from a more traditional community, and he must not have realized how relaxed we were in our observances. Besides recommending at least an hour of study per day (an hour!), he suggested I begin each session with a prayer. Where did he think he was?
As he droned on I remembered a couple of times, at age five or six maybe, when I’d walked with Grandpa to a downtown synagogue, where rows of old men in shawls rocked and chanted. We sat for hours on the hard wood while someone near us kept farting, and others kept coughing, and all I could see was the squiggly hair sticking out of the necks and ears of the men in front of us. It felt like an asylum for decayed bodies. After the service, they squeezed my arms and shoulders as if testing for plumpness, and I thought of the child-eating witch in Hansel and Gretel. I hated the place, and if that’s what the rabbi thought he was training me for, he was vastly mistaken.
I was put off as well by the content of the Bible verses. In my Haftarah passage from Jeremiah, the LORD foretells that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will do the Hebrews’ dirty work by smiting Egypt. And the Torah passage for the day, which thankfully I wouldn’t have to read aloud, was the part of Exodus where God punishes the Egyptians with frogs, vermin, boils, hail, pestilence—and at the same time hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Egypt will deserve even more smiting.
This was the year U.S. troops straggled home from Vietnam, and enough antiwar sentiment lingered in the air to make young people feel virtuous compared to our elders. Naturally, then, I deplored the nastiness and carnage in the Bible—and the unfairness of it all. Why should anyone murder the Egyptians’ cattle because Pharaoh was a jerk? And right before my section of Jeremiah, there’s a verse about the Eternal One taking revenge on His foes: “and the sword shall devour and be satiate, and shall be made drunk with their blood.” This was supposed to be a sacred text?
I compared the Bible to the movies. If you were going to act like Godzilla and wipe out whole cities—and I loved all the ’Zilla flicks, no matter how bad the special effects—the more death and destruction, the better. But you couldn’t pretend there was anything moral about it. That was hypocrisy, which to a twelve-year-old’s absolutist way of thinking is the worst sin of all.
Of course I didn’t discuss Godzilla or other adolescent insights with the assistant rabbi. Instead, with my philosophical gripe added to the others, I started to drag my feet on the way to synagogue—or rather my wheels, because I got there by bike. You couldn’t skip your individual sessions, since the rabbi was a stickler for not wasting time (especially his), but the group Hebrew classes were more loosely structured, so occasionally I kind of forgot to go. Once or twice I rode by across the street just to check for girls, and then I worried someone had spotted me.
As if I needed more trouble, a problem developed with Grandma, my Mom’s mom, our most direct link to tradition. (The fact that we called her Grandma rather than Bubbie shows how assimilated we were.) Clearing out of Poland in advance of the Holocaust, she and her husband had made a success in America with a neighborhood variety store in the city. It was always a magical place for me, packed with exotic smells and sights: chewing tobacco, cigars, gossip magazines, Playboy, hair mousse, horehound cough drops, not to mention the kid-oriented items we never had at home, such as Klondike ice cream bars, Batman comic books, bubble gum with Topps trading cards. It was the one place I got candy without even asking. Plus Grandma and Grandpa would take time to talk with me, and later Becky, about our weird friends, our insane teachers, our revulsion at Mom’s steamed broccoli—all the childish stuff that preoccupied us. They were so little given to high seriousness that I couldn’t picture my mother growing up in that atmosphere. And Grandma was physically affectionate in a way Mom never was. Grandma would hug us, stroke us like kittens and kiss us on the lips.
By the time Grandma moved to our guest room, though, things had changed. Grandpa had died—my first funeral—and the store had been sold. Grandma herself, past seventy now, was having a lot of bad days. Sometimes she put her skirt on backwards and often she forgot her teeth. She was puzzled by newfangled appliances like our toaster oven, which had no slots for the bread. Now and then she spoke in Yiddish, forgetting that none of us understood. She ate erratically at mealtimes but sucked continually on hard licorice candies from an ample supply in her pocketbook.
One day after my Hebrew lesson, I plopped down at the kitchen table where Grandma spent most of her time. She always sat in the same chair, keeping watch on the toaster oven and the refrigerator that mysteriously created ice cubes without human input. Where her arms emerged from the loose floral blouse, the skin looked like crinkly waxed paper. I hated to see her there alone, with Grandpa gone, and her store gone, so for several minutes I gabbed with her about assorted subjects, including my Bar Mitzvah preparation. “Listen, I haven’t practiced this much, but here’s the start of my Haftarah portion,” I said, and chanted the first verse or two. “How’s that? Does it sound right?”
I did value Grandma’s opinion; if I was going to play the part of a nice little Jewish boy predicting the massacre of enemies, I wanted to please her with my delivery. I was delighted when her face brightened. “This is wunnerful, Robbit,” she grinned. (Her teeth were in her mouth that day, but her pronunciation still had its vagaries.) Clutching my skinny arm with her skinnier fingers, she said, “You are grown so far! You will make such a man!”
Using me for support, she pulled herself to a standing position and hugged me, which I liked, but she held the clinch long enough to discomfit me, and as I squirmed away I felt moisture where her cheek brushed my arm. “It is your zeyde,” she whispered, “I am hearing from him in you. He had so beautiful voice.”
I cleared my throat and crossed to the refrigerator for a glass of juice, embarrassed that she made so much of my simulated Judaism.
“But is good, good,” she went on. “He says to me, he says. . . . Wait, Robbit, I show you, yes, I have little something for you.”
She plucked my arm again and made me follow her upstairs to her room, a step-by-step climb as she clamped hard on the banister, her shoes invisible under her long pleated skirt. Hers was the one room in the house with old furniture—a Victorian dresser she’d refused to give up, a wobbly nightstand. At her closet she knelt to rummage on the floor until she slid out a cardboard shirt box, which I helped her lift and place on the bed.
Inside were some of my grandfather’s ritual accouterments: the tefillin with their leather straps folded neatly on top, and below them the tallit, the prayer shawl. I was relieved when Grandma set the tefillin aside on the bedspread—no way would I have attached those things to my head and arm; nobody in our synagogue wore them. I’d seen Bar Mitzvah boys with shawls, however, and as Grandma unfolded this one I made appropriate noises.
“This is amazing,” I said. Indeed it was—white embroidered silk with bands of golden-tan brocade and long slender fringes. But when she draped the fabric across my arms, saying, “You wear this on the bimah, Zeyde will be proud,” I felt a twinge of squeamishness. It disturbed me that she talked of Grandpa as if he still watched over us. Close up, I saw the old-woman’s ringlet of lines around her mouth, like needles jabbing her lips, and I caught the odor of licorice. I remembered the old, farty, shawled men in Grandpa’s synagogue.
Then, when I lifted one end of the tallit to pretend to admire it, a reek assaulted my nose, a foulness like mummified farts. And I noticed a stain on one of the shawl’s corner fringes, the four-stranded tzitzis, which I knew from my lessons were the all-important parts, the things traditional Jews kiss after touching the Torah scroll with them. About an inch long, the discoloration was deep yellow like urine. It couldn’t have been any such thing, of course, but that sight combined with the smell made me shudder.
I felt trapped, unable to breathe. The tallit fell to the floor. “I don’t—I can’t—” I snorted, and bolted from the room.
I was still irritated the next day when my mother tried to talk to me about it. “Grandma says she took out your grandfather’s best tallit for your Bar Mitzvah, but you acted like you hated it, you threw it down and stormed out.”
“Nuh-uh, I didn’t say I hated it.”
“It may not be a symbol we care about, but she does, and you can’t be so rude to—”
“I wasn’t rude, I didn’t mean to be, Mom, that shawl smells and it has a big stain on it like—but I don’t care, I’ll wear it I guess, but aren’t we”—and here I pulled out a characteristic phrase of my father’s—“getting way ahead of ourselves? ’Cause my birthday’s not for five months, I don’t even have my suit yet, are you taking me shopping sometime?”
With such tactics I managed to avoid a formal Discussion, but something was bothering me. More and more I skipped Hebrew class and lied about it when asked. I started to have dreams of being squashed by a crowd of stinky old men in shawls, so that I’d wake up huffing for breath with the bedclothes wrapped around my head. I also dreamed I stood on the bimah facing a room of frowns, the old men’s knobby fingers waggling at me. When I tried to escape, all the doors were locked.
As the weeks till the big performance shortened, I was forgetting more than I learned, and the assistant rabbi came close to losing his temper. Besides my reading from Jeremiah, we had to work on my d’var Torah, the short commentary I’d give on the Torah portion for the day. For that I had no ideas at all, and the rabbi demanded to meet twice a week until I showed progress—a suggestion I evaded. He asked if he needed to speak with my father. Molecules of aftershave evaporated as he fumed, and a long black hair in his nose jiggled. On the way home I stopped in a music store and hammered my head with heavy metal.
In those weeks Grandma was struggling, too. The signs of her decline grew worse; she forgot to take her pills, said she’d eaten lunch when she hadn’t and (to Mom’s special dismay) left the toilet unflushed. One day, coming home from school, I found the front door wide open and Grandma kneeling on the neighbors’ well-groomed lawn.
“Hey, what’re you doing over there?” I called.
She cranked her head up toward the sky with a bewildered expression. “It’s me,” I said, “over here,” and I jogged to her side. “Did you lose something?”
“Kozepins,” she mumbled, and bent over again to peer between the grass blades.
“Hang Zeyde’s shirts on line,” she explained. “But I can’t fine kozepins.”
When I helped her up, she straightened her skirt, brushed off the grass clippings and marched straight back to our kitchen, where she popped a licorice into her mouth.
That night Mom gave her a big lecture. Although Grandma seemed to understand what she’d done wrong, Mom declared she could no longer stay in the house by herself. Luckily the local community center offered a day program for seniors; a van would pick her up in the morning and bring her back at 4:30. This left two hours till the usual time when Mom and Dad got home. Mom planned to hire a “companion” to bridge that gap, but Grandma’s eyes went beady with fear. “No fremder in my house!” she insisted. “But this isn’t your—” Mom began, and then sadly shook her head.
Having seen a “companion” in a friend’s apartment—a fat Ukrainian lady who tugged and cajoled her elderly charge like an impatient dogwalker—I spoke up in Grandma’s defense. “She’s not that bad,” I argued, “only now and then. And I’m home by 4:30—even when I go to synagogue I can be here by then—so we don’t need somebody else, it’d upset her. Really, Mom, don’t you think we can handle this ourselves?” Though I didn’t know why Grandma was scared, I felt it’d be shameful for an outsider to step in, and by playing on Mom’s doubts I got the decision postponed.
For the next couple of weeks, with pride in my self-appointed responsibility, I made sure to reach home before the van arrived. There wasn’t much for me to do, just check that Grandma got inside safely, but it meant turning down chances to hang with friends after school. What a good little boy I was.
After Grandma’s first few days at the community center, I took a seat at the kitchen table and asked her about the place. “How’s it going over there? What do you do all day—play cards and stuff?” (I knew she used to be a whiz at bridge.)
“Nah,” she said, “nah. Buncha old ladies too dumb for cards. They ask what’s comin’ for lunch. After, they tell what they ate. Then they wanta know what’s lunch tomorrow.”
I laughed. “Is the food okay at least?”
“Tuna on toast. Tuna on lettuce. Tuna on muffin.”
“Wow, sounds good.”
She swiped a hand at me. “Smartie, you see when you get old. They make you sit with old people, pfaah!”
This was the Grandma I remembered, quick and sassy. She’d brushed her hair that day and the white mane shone. She’d donned a yellow flower-print dress and even some makeup—and remembered her teeth. I had a pang of nostalgia for the days in her store.
“You wanta know what we do?” she went on, pulling a face. “We do Crochet Club, make scarves for nobody. We have Stretch and Strengthen Exercise, raise your hands and wiggle round.” She performed a comical version of this for me. As I was sniggering she went on, “But best is Fred.”
“Plays piano. We do Sing Along with Fred.” She broke into a warbly tune, ‘Don’ sid unner the apple tree wid anyone else bud me, anyone else bud me, anyone else bud me.’” Which she concluded with a wicked grin while I howled.
“It’s a shame,” I said when I sobered up, “there’s nothing you enjoy.”
“Is what it is, Robbit. But I like the drawing pitchers.”
“Today she said, ‘Draw house where you grow up.’ So I draw street in Krakow.”
“That’s cool. You still remember what it looked like, huh?”
She felt under the table for her pocketbook. Grunting, she pulled from its vast interior a large paper folded in sixths, and we smoothed this out on the table—a charcoal sketch of a narrow three-story townhouse with an arched doorway and outlines of similar attached homes on the sides. Though the lines wavered, the image was sharp and realistic.
“I had no idea you could draw. This was your house?”
“Useta teach girls draw, paint, keep us outa monkey business. My friend Sura lived there” (pointing to the house next door), “your zeyde round the corner.”
“And is this someone on the sidewalk?”
“Mailman. See, big shmutz with charcoal, I try to show how fat. He had sweets for your Great-Aunt Ester. She liked him too, spite of his fat.”
I laughed. “And what happened? Did they get married?”
Grandma glanced up at me and shrugged. “We never find out,” she said.
Suddenly remembering the times I’d heard names from the past—names I’d ignored, the numerous relatives who didn’t get out early—I flushed. “Oh.”
She rubbed the “shmutz” with her index finger, perhaps trying to clean it up. To repair my blunder I said in an outraged tone, “They shouldn’t just ask people to draw the place they grew up in. They should think what that means.”
“Art teacher don’t know from old Jews, Robbit. Twenny-two years old blonde honey, you oughta see. Zaftig, boobs out to here.”
I blushed again.
“Me, I don’t mind the drawing. I feel okay when brain works.”
I reached over and hugged her. “Show this picture to Mom. She’ll like it.”
Grandma smooched my neck. When I released her she concentrated on folding the paper into sixths again. “People don’t needa see dis,” she opined. “Old time is forgot, Robbit. People’s too busy.” When she wedged the sketch into her purse she pulled out two licorice candies, offering one to me.
That night I lifted my Torah off the shelf, inspired to give it a little attention. Soon I lost interest, though, realizing that Grandma’s sketch, and her handful of words about it, had brought me more sense of heritage than all the biblical stories I’d heard while half-asleep in synagogue. Mysterious gray buildings hulked in my mind, under a leaden Old World sky, with smells of potato and onion and distant kids’ voices echoing from stone walls—and I daydreamed about taking her back to Poland in a few years, myself a sophisticated college man and Grandma still bright-eyed and alert.
The next afternoon when she came home from the community center, I felt I had to set something right. Once she was seated in her usual kitchen chair, I said, “Grandma, I wanta make sure you understand, I’m happy about wearing Grandpa’s tallit, I don’t care if it smells a little. Having something of his will mean a lot to me.” This was a mild exaggeration, but I felt I was doing a good deed, so it dismayed me when she stared at the toaster oven with glassy eyes and shrugged. “I put away,” she muttered.
“No, no, get it out again, I really want to wear it, I do!” Bouncing with fake eagerness, I provoked a bit of a smile.
Another week passed, and I started to get more serious about my Hebrew and Haftarah lessons if only to avoid making a fool of myself. One day I was studying in my room, plugging away alternately at math and Hebrew and elaborating my dreams of a trip to Poland, when Dad appeared in the doorway.
“Hi, Dad. You’re home early.”
He massaged his nose between thumb and forefinger, a typical sign that he felt harassed. “Where’s your grandmother?” he said.
“In the kitchen? I heard Becky down there talking to her a little while ago.”
Dad shook his head. “Not now. Just her teeth on the table.”
“Maybe she went to her room to lie down. She looked tired today when the van dropped her off.”
I focused on my math book again, but Dad was back in two minutes to report the lack of a little white-haired lady in the bedroom or in any of our three bathrooms. “The front door was unlocked,” he grumbled.
I jumped up. We found Becky in her room and quizzed her, but she too thought Grandma was still in the kitchen. The three of us searched the house and I ran outside to check the front and back and the nearby yards. No trace, and we knew she had never visited our neighbors.
By then Dad had called Mom’s office to tell her to scan the streets as she drove home. He went off in his car to do the same. Becky stayed in the house in case Grandma turned up, and I set out on foot.
One part of my brain assured me this couldn’t be a big deal: emergencies don’t explode when you’re doing algebra homework. At the same time my upper lip oozed beads of guilt, and panic blurred my eyes. I’d volunteered for the responsibility and then neglected it—although who could’ve known she’d—but she’d already wandered out once, so shouldn’t I have guessed?—but nobody had told me to watch her every minute—and thus around and around in recriminations and excuses as I dashed down sidewalks, around fences, across lawns, through flowerbeds in the warren of residential streets beyond our cul-de-sac.
She couldn’t have gone far, but it was early November now, dark already and growing cold. I had no jacket and neither, I was sure, did Grandma. In the passing cars I imagined synagogue elders pointing at me, clucking their lips. My shirttail pulled out and flapped about me like a mock prayer shawl.
A dog barked. A horn blared. Several times Grandma appeared as a shadow behind a tree or parked car, then dissolved as I ran up to her. I tried to strike a quick bargain with the Lord whose hypocrisy I so condemned: I’ll read Torah every day if You—
In the small shopping district a few blocks away, the sidewalks had emptied as everyone headed home for dinner. Three cars idled at a red light. The owner of Cookie’s Custom Cakes locked her door. Not being an athlete, I was already out of breath as I pulled up outside the laundromat to grab my knees and wheeze. A sickly fluorescent light spilled through the clouded window.
Since every house in our neighborhood had its own washer and dryer, the aged laundromat served only the handful of college students or hangers-on who rented apartments above the stores. On this evening the lone occupant appeared to be an old caretaker hunched in a plastic chair in the front corner, the sort of person who yanks out clothes abandoned in the dryers and grumpily sweeps grains of detergent from the floor. I thought of asking her if she’d seen a tiny lady pass by on foot. It was something to do while I caught my breath.
I had pushed through the smudged glass door and started to speak when I recognized her. “Grandma?” I said. “Grandma, oh my god, what are you doing here?!”
Legs crumped under the chair, chin halfway to her lap, she was folded up like her sketch of Krakow. Her face, when she raised it at last, gave no sign that she knew me. Her pocketbook yawned between her feet, and I worried that she’d been robbed, slugged, traumatized. I rubbed her shoulders, clasped her little face in my hands. Her cheeks collapsed from the lack of teeth. “We have to go home! Everyone’s searching for you! Are you okay, can you stand up? Did anyone hurt you? Look, is there a—yeah, a pay phone, lemme call home, Becky’ll tell Dad to come get us, stay right there, I’ll—” I rushed to the back of the room, and in a minute I’d blurted the message to my sister. Meanwhile Grandma had stumbled to her feet and tottered a few paces. When I ran back to her she mumbled, “It don’ wukk.”
“Are you okay?” I pressed again. “You’re not hurt anywhere?”
“Dere,” she said. She gestured, and looked in my face, and now I thought she recognized me. “Where?” I said. “What?”
She half-lurched, half-scooted along the concrete floor to a big machine, where she poked a bony digit at the glass window. I peered in. I yanked the door open. Inside was Grandpa’s tallit, still folded.
“Huh? This? . . . Oh god, were you trying to wash it?”
“Go roun’,” she confirmed, rotating her hand. “For you. But id don’ go.”
“Grandma, first of all,” I said, my head swimming, “I think you have to put money in. Second of all, this is—I’m pretty sure—a dryer, not a washer. Third of all, we have our own machines at home, remember, in the basement? None of this makes sense!”
I glared at her, my panic returning. She watched my gesticulating finger, studied my lips. She frowned. She plucked one corner of the tallit, scrutinizing it. Then she gave an abashed little grin. “I ged fermisht somedime,” she said. “Miss up.”
I exhaled. “You sure do get mixed up.”
She bobbed her head up and down. “Fermisht, fermisht,” she chortled.
I snickered with her. A moment passed. Coyly, then, she lifted the tallit from my hands, unfolded it and, reaching up on tiptoe, looped it over the top of my head. I stiffened, expecting a stench, but only a faint whiff of dust reached my nose. After gazing at me this way for a moment, she yanked the shawl tight like a babushka, pulled my face down and kissed me on the lips.
She giggled. I tasted licorice. My chest steamed, my cheeks burned. The room spun and it felt like we were dancing, though our feet didn’t move.
Then my anxiety broke loose in a guffaw, and for a minute we both laughed crazily.
When I recovered, I felt compelled to warn her: “Mom’ll say this is No Laughing Matter.”
With two fingers she nibbled at my shirt, drew me to her with a devious little smirk. “Robbit,” she whispered.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“But they’ll already know. Dad’ll come to get us.”
She stroked the tallit and tickled my neck with the tzitzis. “So hide,” she pleaded. “Hide away.”
“How?” But a scheme dawned on me. “Okay, yeah, look, we can put this in your pocketbook, and we’ll tell them you went for a walk and got tired, so you came in here to rest. And you were going to call home if you needed to, right?”
Her head wobbled vigorously. I ducked out from under the tallit, refolded it, and we carried out the plan, hampered only by the chewing gum from the floor that stuck to one of Grandma’s soles. As we scraped the shoe with cardboard from a discarded detergent box, we kept bursting into giggles. By the time Dad’s car pulled up we were in such high spirits that he gaped at us.
Without ceremony he penned her in the back seat and locked her door. After he and I got in the front, he chastised her over his shoulder: “You’ve given us an awful scare, you know. We’ll need to discuss this tonight.”
“But, Dad,” I argued, “she was just out walking.”
“Without a coat?”
“It was warm earlier. And it’s not her fault we didn’t trust her to find her way back. She’s fine and dandy, aren’t you, Grandma?” I winked over the seat at her, and she beamed.
Dad asked grimly, “Robert, what did you learn from this?” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. At home Mom waited in the doorway, arms folded high across her chest.
After the ensuing Discussion, Mom contacted agencies about a hired “companion,” but the options fell so short of her standards that again the step was put off. Grandma and I giggled about the success of our conspiracy, hiding our mouths behind our hands.
In the following days, though, I felt altered. My Poland dream had shattered, for one thing. I found myself out of breath for no reason, as if my air were being strained through a fabric. At times the room spun as it had in the laundromat during our motionless dance. Colors changed as well, so that our domestic affairs seemed as oddly tinted as Bible stories.
Putting extra effort into my Hebrew study, I gave in to the rabbi’s pressure to meet him twice a week. With a glance toward the upper corners of my room, I pointed out to the Big Guy that I was keeping my part of the bargain. My view of the Bible shifted, too, because I started to find a sneaky humor in Jeremiah’s dismal warnings. “Egypt is a very fair heifer,” he snickers, “but the gadfly out of the north is come, it is come.” Really, isn’t that kind of comical—peoples at war pictured as a big fly biting a cow’s ass? I thought it was, and it made more sense that way. Like a kind of Godzilla movie, where the tragic and camp get mixed together in any way the director wants.
But if we had a deal, the Lord Director reneged on it. One afternoon she’d been alone in the kitchen less than ten minutes when I heard Becky call, “Grandma? Grandma? Why are you sitting like that?” I ran in to find her slumped in her chair, still confronting the toaster oven. When I touched her shoulder a licorice drop slid from her mouth. Becky shrieked.
After dragging Becky to the family room, I managed to call 911 and Mom before I ran to hide on the basement stairs, choking and gasping.
The funeral was my second. The pattern was sinking in.
Before Mom could clear out Grandma’s room, I found the sketch of Krakow in her pocketbook and hid it in my dresser. And when I got the new suit for my Bar Mitzvah, I folded the sketch into the jacket pocket, to be sure it’d stay with me.
On the bimah weeks later, when I stepped up to say the prayer after the Torah reading, I ground my knuckles on the altar. “Take it easy,” the rabbi muttered, and I glowered at him, angry as well as anxious. But after I struggled through that blessing, the rabbi brought out Grandpa’s tallit, fresh from the dry cleaners. With a practiced ritual gesture, he laid it around my shoulders. At that moment I thought I saw Grandma’s tiny white head poke up in a back row. “Robbit,” she was whispering, “today you are a man,” and unlike the dozens who would utter the same tired phrase by day’s end, she smirked and winked as she said it.
Shaken, I stared at the apparition, gulping for breath. But I fingered the piss-colored stain still visible on the tzitzis, and pressed my jacket to feel the sketch crinkle against me. A taste of licorice startled my tongue. I grinned back at Grandma and then, scared and exhilarated, I lit into Jeremiah. Secretly I was gyrating there on the bimah, in our little dance nobody could see.
Overall I acquitted myself decently, by our congregation’s modest standards. In my d’var Torah I talked about the importance of finding our own personal approaches to our heritage. This went over well, perhaps because nobody guessed what I truly thought about frogs, boils and the cow’s ass.
I shook lots of hands that day, collected my congratulations and my gelt and packed away enough pastry to last me through college. At the party that night, I had to dance for real, with my mom and my aunt and then with my zaftig older cousin Sheila, who pressed in tight. As Sheila’s breasts brushed my shirt, my neck oozed heat and my jerky feet lost all connection to the music. It was humiliating and comic, and yet I accepted my fate like a man.
Illustrative Imagery by Karen Henderson
“In my work, I am interested in the connections between self, place, emotion and time. Seasons, atmospheres and the time of day intrigue me. I try to recreate these natural occurrences, evoking emotions that I associate with them through the use of color, line, and texture. I use different dye techniques (batik, shibori, color removal, rust print) as well as sewing with my weavings and fabric pieces. I draw lines by stitching with thread. Dimension is added with tucks, layers, or other manipulations of fabric. The lines suggest landscape or other aspects of nature. Lately I’ve been experimenting a bit with more mixed media techniques like textured acrylics, inks, and mono-prints. Many of the textile techniques I choose to use are very contemplative, encouraging introspection; while other processes like dyeing and mixed media approaches are more spontaneous and unpredictable. I try to find a balance between the two approaches, hoping to capture those ephemeral, fleeting moments of time that inspire me.”